Leafs forced to rethink identity

Forward Mikhail Grabovski moves the puck up-ice during Leafs practice Thursday. (ERNEST...

Forward Mikhail Grabovski moves the puck up-ice during Leafs practice Thursday. (ERNEST DOROSZUK/QMI Agency)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:28 AM ET

TORONTO - Remember “top six,” “bottom six,” once one of the more bold commandments of Brian Burke and his philosophy for constructing a rugged, winning NHL team?

Haven’t heard much of it around the Leafs lately, have we?

For a variety of reasons, team management has temporarily had to tinker with the concept in attempting to upgrade the forward group.

The idea, you will recall, is to have two lines built on finesse and speed followed by third and fourth units designed to be solid defensively and able to administer a bruise or two to the other team’s offensive stars.

Getting the big, skilled players required to make the plan work is far easier said than done, of course. Such players don’t often appear on waiver wires or get bundled in multiple-player trade offers. And drafting them takes years to develop.

“Would we like some more size potentially in our bottom six?,” Leafs vice-president of hockey operations Dave Nonis said on Thursday. “Sure, but it’s not readily available.

“Quality big men playing third-line minutes, generally teams like to keep them. You have to play with what you have.”

So far, playing with what they have has led to one of the biggest surprises of Leafs camp.

Tyler Bozak, who was miscast as the team’s No. 1 centre a year ago and often struggled, has teamed with Colby Armstrong to provide a trio that has provided the necessary edge, with some offensive production as a bonus.

The line has also been worth watching because it has the one notable positional battle of camp. Nazem Kadri would be your betting favourite for the other winger job at this point but he is getting a good scrap from Matt Frattin.

Joe Colborne, who looks like he could use some more seasoning in the AHL, is a distant third.

Recognizing that the first-line role wasn’t likely be his again this fall, Bozak’s bosses had some specific instructions for him in the off-season.

“He was told that adding strength would be a good idea and he’s done that without putting on a lot of weight,” Nonis said. “He is stronger and that’s the way he has to play on that kind of line. You need that strength to win those puck battles.

“I think there were a lot of unfair expectations on him last year. That’s a lot of pressure. But at this point in his career, he’s a better third-line player than first.”

Without saying as much, Nonis recognizes that the team is still a work in progress to the extent that scoring will have to come from beyond the first two lines. In reality, they are not deep enough to have two strictly “pick and shovel” lines, as Burke likes to call them.

“With this team, (scoring from the other two lines) is going to be a necessity,” Nonis said. “It’s the way we’re going to have to play.”

To that end, no one wants to improve on his 32-point season last year more than Bozak. And his employers would prefer a dramatic reversal of his team worst minus-29 rating.

So what kind of a third line might this be?

“Even with (Kadri) or Matt Frattin on that line, there is more grit than there has been the last couple of years,” Nonis said. “Frattin is up for the challenge for that spot and has shown us he can do more than just play offence.

“Bozie is more comfortable playing a third-line role with Armstrong. He’s better defensively, he’s playing with more of an edge. He’s not a monster in terms of size, but he’s been much tougher on the puck so far.”

You have to be careful drawing too many conclusions one week into training camp when the intensity league-wide has yet to escalate.

But even if the roll of the third line has been blurred, the Leafs like what they have seen so far.

“With the top six, bottom six, there has always been a clear division of skill and grinding. That’s not necessarily the case any more.”


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